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Cutting to the Chase: Writing the Category Novel

For years, I've written long books containing complex webs of characters and convoluted plots. My historical romances (written as Gwyneth Atlee and Colleen Easton) started out at about 120,000 words, but thanks to the rising cost of ink and paper, word counts gradually dropped. Even so, it was rare for me to turn in a book of less than 100,000 words for my single-title romantic suspense novels.

I love writing the big book and building the world and complexities that go with it. But my brand new release, the Romantic Times Top Pick Capturing the Commando was written for Harlequin's Intrigue line, which has a carved-in-stone word count of 55-60,000 words. Since I sold this book off of a brief proposal, I was a little nervous about how I would handle the challenge of "waltzing in a phone booth," as I've heard the writing of the category or series novel (shorter, numbered books, usually some flavor of romance) described. How would I boil down the story to its essential elements without sacrificing an enjoyable reading/writing experience?

Here are a few things I've learned along the way:

• Figure out which elements are bringing readers to the type of books you're writing. This means reading lots of representative samples by popular writers in the line you're targeting. But read debut books, too, to see what's recently made the cut.
• Immediately get the foundation for the critical elements on the page. For example, Harlequin Intrigue readers love action, law enforcement scenarios, formidable Alpha heroes, and smart, capable heroines, who don't fall apart when the going gets tough. And they want to see a heightened connection between these characters unfolding in the heat of a crisis.
• Keep the cast of characters as small as possible, doubling-up character roles whenever you can.
• If at all possible, limit the point of view to the heroine and hero. Generally, these books begin with the heroine's viewpoint, then alternate throughout the book. (I did include a third POV in Commando in a few very brief scenes, because there was no other way to impart what I considered crucial information.
• Severely reduce/eliminate subplots, backstory, and large chunks of exposition.
• Live by this mantra: If it doesn't move the plot forward, it doesn't need to be there.
• Tuck brief, telling descriptive details into dialogue or action, but only as many as you absolutely need.
• Get right to "the good stuff," or, as Elmore Leonard puts it, "Leave out the parts that people don't read."

I was happy to find that writing the category novel is a blast. Since I've only written two (the new release and this September's Phantom of the French Quarter, along with the novella "Lethal Lessons," in the 2-in-1 Silhouette Romantic Suspense edition, Deadlier Than the Male) I don't consider myself an expert, but I'm having a great time bringing quick, entertaining tales to readers in a hurry and hope to get the chance to do more.

Just for fun, and to illustrate what I mean by cutting to the chase, I'll leave you with the opening paragraphs of Capturing the Commando. Hope you enjoy!

He had her dead to rights.
Maybe dead in fact, too, Shannon Brandt realized as a deep voice warned, “Don’t move,” and something hard jammed into her back. The barrel of a handgun? All from a passerby she’d barely noticed as she hurried to the corner breakfast joint where the rest of her team was already positioned, ready to make the grab. The tall white male, face mostly hidden by the brim of a goofy tourist ball cap, had been looking down, apparently engrossed in a brochure for the kitschy mermaid park nearby. He’d seemed harmlessly distracted, with a diaper bag tucked guy-style, like a football, beneath one arm. Waiting for his wife, she thought, and paying no heed to anyone else.
Or so it had seemed until the moment she’d passed and he was out of sight.
Her stomach plummeted when he ground out, “Into the car. Now. We’ll have our little talk there, Special Agent.”
Giving her a slight push, he propelled her not toward the nondescript stolen vehicle she might have expected but to a cherry-red Cadillac the size of the Queen Mary. The gas-sucking seventies engine rumbled, and she saw a sweaty-looking pale man with dark, reflective glasses slouched low behind the wheel.
Though shaded by a floppy beach hat, the driver’s weak chin gave him away as one Garrett Smith, she realized, her heart constricting with the knowledge that that meant the man behind her, the fake dad with the weapon, was well prepared to use it—that he was the very fugitive she’d been so certain she had fooled into walking into their trap.
She blanched, wondering how long it had taken him to figure out she was FBI. And whether he meant to retaliate for her online masquerade and efforts to entrap him.


Jo Anne said…
Those first 6 paragraphs set up the story so well, Colleen. And I loved the rest of it, too. :-)

Good job, and thanks for the category series tips. I do live by the motto, 'if it doesn't move the plot and characterization forward, it doesn't need to be there.' It helps one stay focused.
Thanks so much for the kind words, Jo Anne!

I'll be cheering you on in the Golden Hearts for your category novel, too!
Jo Anne said…
Thanks, Colleen. I just hope I've learned the bottom line to what makes a category romance work. :-)
Anonymous said…
Thanks, are always spot on with your writing advice. And, I always appreacite your honesty. Here's wishing you many sales!!
Thanks so much, Karen! From your lips...
Linda Barrett said…
Colleen - You've just doubled your career successes! Great work. I loved the beginning of the story and how you figured out the demands of category books. IMHO, Harlequin is lucky to have you!
Like Jo Anne, I appreciate, "If it doesn't move the plot forward, it doesn't need to be there." How very true!

HARD to learn! But you do this so well.

Thank you so much for the kind words, Jane and Linda. I really think that writing the shorter novels has sharpened my sense of what's most critical to readers.
Lark said…
As susal, great advice for all writers! Thanks!
Glad you stopped by Lark! Thanks!
Jeanna Thornton said…
Colleen , wonderful pointers! Just got a little insight of my own on POV. Wow! Once I was enlightened, how fun POV became. Great advice on pushing the story forward! Great post!! j.
Gracias, Jeanna! What was your POV insight. If you get this, can you share?
Jeanna Thornton said…
I was writing in the Third Person Omniscient , not realizing my MS did not need the extensive coverage. Once I switched to Third Person POV, (thanks to MD) keeping the POV within limited characters seemed so much easier...still learning! :)
Good for you! Omniscient is hard to pull off because most modern readers are put off by the distance. In the age of oversharing, we tend to want to be right in a character's head where we can get to know them.

I think omniscient has its place, though. I've used it in "helicopter" openings that zero in on a crucial clue before moving to a character's POV. And it's great when the real "character" is actually a group or a society. It's very unusual, though, in recent years, but who knows? Maybe its time will come again.
Unknown said…
Thank you so much!...

go public

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